In March 2009, Valerie Harper, author and actress best know for her work on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," had her
world turned upside down when the nonsmoker was diagnosed with lung cancer.
After a noninvasive surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, Harper, 73, thought her
life was back on track.
Going on to pen a memoir and star in a new one-woman show,
by all accounts, she was correct. But a shocking diagnosis on January 15
derailed the iconic sitcom star’s plans.
Harper now finds herself in a battle with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that occurs when cancer cells spread into the fluid-filled
membrane (called meninges) that surround the brain. Harper's oncologist Dr. Ronald Natale told People that leptomeningeal carcinomatosis accounts for approximately 2 percent of all cancers and is considered incurable and can prove fatal in as few as three months.
According to Johns Hopkins, while it can be a primary or
originating cancer, leptomeningeal carcinomatosis is usually a metastatic
malignancy (primary cancer that spreads to other parts of the body) that often
teams up with breast and lung cancer. A separate
study conducted by Greek researchers says the disease is also a common
metastasis of leukemia and lymphoma.
Symptoms tend to come on quickly and progress rapidly and
Feeling like you’re
wearing a belt across your midsection
Harper reports first feeling the strange “belt-like
sensation” last August and naturally went to the doctor. “I’m not a watch and
wait kind of person, so I go every six months for my MRI because of the lung
cancer,” says Harper. However, a round of tests failed to detect the brain
So she proceeded with plans for her one-woman show Looped. In mid January, numbness in her jaw required Harper to be hospitalized for more tests, including spinal taps.
The current cancer diagnosis came just days later and included the news that
cancerous cells had spread into her spinal fluid.
According to the People article, Harper is currently undergoing chemotherapy to try to slow down progression of
the disease. But because it’s difficult to get
chemotherapy drugs into the meninges, there are "limitations” in treating
the condition, says Dr. Jeremy Rudnick, Harper's neuro-oncologist.
Despite facing intense adversity, Harper maintains a
“When I came out of surgery [for the lung cancer] my husband
stroked my head and said ‘Why you?’ and I told him ‘Why not me?’" she said in an interview last month. "I’m thankful I
have health insurance and access to cutting-edge surgeons. Not everyone does, so
maybe this will help shed light on the importance of early detection and
“No matter what, no one should ever just accept a death
sentence or diminished life. There are so many avenues available for treatment
and to enjoy life. No one should just give up,” she said.
Instead, Harper encouraged those living with cancer, as well
as those who aren’t, to “pursue everything.”
“Don’t let it be your time before your time—even with
cancer,” she said. “You’re alive, so be in the moment of your life. Don’t worry
about what’s to come. I’m here now.”